This is my father on the back of a friend’s motorcycle circa 1928.
Hollywood: A Link to History
There are endless books about the immigrants who built Hollywood. And while most of those early studio moguls did indeed come from East Europe, that story has been allowed to overshadow the bigger story — that the American movie industry was just as much an outgrowth of the American character as jazz.
The first dedicated film studios were in New Jersey and New York. The few that survived were forged in free market rivalries, steeled by the violence of the U.S. patent wars. The first movie actors were drawn from the American stage, and their pioneering cameramen and film directors and writers were all committed to surviving in the New World by finding fresh and appropriate stories to tell.
These motion picture innovators dreamed of futures not pre-determined by class or rank, and of careers not based on who their parents were. These were the people who shaped and refined the Hollywood “dream factory.” Many were clearly new citizens, and others may have been first-generation born, but all of them were 100 percent Americans because they dared to look to the future and not necessarily to the past.
In short, I believe it wasn’t immigrants who projected their values and ethos on American movie-goers. It was the collective vision of what America represented that reshaped the immigrant experience and inspired fresh and optimistic dreams.
In my series of novels I hope to return Hollywood to those historically American roots. I think that that story has a good deal more to tell us about who we are as a people.
The Novels of John W. Harding
The Ben-Hur Murders
Inside Hollywood’s most thrilling day
… and best-kept secret!
The Designated Virgin
The untold story of America’s first battle over motion picture censorship.
Movies, sex and intrigue
in Mussolini’s Italy.
The movies stole a lot of the storytelling thunder from novelists in the early 20th century. In my series of Hollywood novels, I’ve set out to even the score by dramatizing some key events in the history of motion pictures.
As a storyteller, two things in particular interest me about the early moviemakers: The first is their innocence, and the second is their corruption. Both themes are implicit in one of the most famous moving images from the birth of film.
In Thomas A. Edison’s 1896 “The Kiss,” fatherly John C. Rice embraces matronly May Irwin, straightens out his handlebar mustache and plants a theatrical smooch upon her yielding lips. What could be more innocent? And yet, given the mores of the time and the unprecedented nature of such a public display, it was seen as daringly scandalous — and all in Edison’s pursuit, mind you, of commercial box office!
The exploitation of the innocent (and the only seemingly innocent) for gain is a dynamic that repeats itself throughout the history of movies, on almost every level. In “The Ben-Hur Murders,” I show how Prohibition opened Hollywood’s back gates to a criminal underworld, even as idealistic moguls were busily laying the groundwork of the modern studio system.
In future novels I will show how reformers fought for a foothold, how the star system bred a better-looking class of reprobates, and how the influx of organized crime found fertile ground beneath the Hollywoodland sign. Check back here for news about the next installment.